Photo: Eli Ade/Sony Pictures Entertainment
Sacrifice was done well before Top Gun: Maverick came out, but it’s hard not to remember that movie – and of course the first one topgun – in opening scenes that range from sensual close-ups of a Vought F4U Corsair fighter to an image of Glen Powell in a bomber jacket, in all his glory as he drives past a plane taking off from a runway and struts at Quonset Point Air Force Station on the coast of Rhode Island. But at least it’s nice to see it though MaverickScene-stealing Hangman Back in the Navy, these opening moments feel like a more conscious nod to this kind of movie Sacrifice will be no to be. JD Dillard’s poignant aviation drama soon sets its own unique tone as Powell’s Tom Hudner walks into an empty locker room and hears a male voice in the bathroom mutter bitterly, “You’re worth shit.”
That voice belongs to Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), an accomplished aviator with whom Hudner has been working with since the beginning and who, we learn, has become so engrossed in the racism and hatred he has faced over the years that he often repeats insults to himself in the mirror to move. The year is 1950, there is war in Korea. For Strike Fighter Squadron 32, most of whom missed World War II (which they call “The Big Show”), the new conflict is a chance to prove themselves. But Brown stands out from the rest, not only because of his race, but also because as a family man, he has a life he’d like to return to. For his loving wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), going abroad to go to war is not an opportunity for Jesse to serve, but an understandable cause of grave concern.
Sacrifice tells the true story of Brown and Hudner’s growing friendship as “Fighting 32n/ahe sails out and finally faces a dogfight. It certainly works like a war movie, even if the moves feel pretty familiar at this point. There is an early tragedy to remind our heroes of the dangers of their jobs; there is an alcoholic, friendly interlude on the French Riviera (where men party with Elizabeth Taylor!); there is a part where someone defies orders to engage in an act of heroism; is an ill-advised rescue mission. Sacrifice is based on fact, and the obligatory archival photo appeal at the end is a reminder that many of these things (including the Taylor run-in) really happened. But the familiar often hides inconvenient truths: a heroic act of mutiny by a black soldier in 1950 can quickly turn into insubordination and potentially disgrace.
Admittedly, the film manages to make even its more predictable elements seem fascinating and new at the moment. Dillard, who demonstrated his skills with a suspenseful visual narrative in the brilliant 2019 thriller castaways Honey, adds confidence and authenticity to the aviation scenes, and the climax of the film, which takes place during the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, is truly thrilling. But again, don’t expect dazzling, Maverickhere’s a spectacle of the style (even if both films share a common aerial stunt coordinator in the form of the brilliant Kevin LaRosa). It’s a smaller, grimmer picture where the tension doesn’t come from machines, but from men.
This also makes it a difficult film in terms of dramaturgy. Sacrifice has something to do with soldiers that is omitted from many war movies for storytelling purposes: they are not the type of people to wear their emotions on their sleeves. They are succinct, reserved people for whom control and discipline are everything. Perhaps more importantly, Brown has clearly learned the hard way not to really trust anyone. As a result, the relationship between him and Hudner, which begins as aloof and progresses towards sober loyalty, never really turns out to be so conventionally dramatic. This is not a flashy movie. That’s the point: with these men, you have to read between the lines of what they say and do to understand how they really feel. There are episodes Sacrifice where there doesn’t seem to be that much going on, but when you look closer, you’ll realize that almost everything is going on.
It takes a lot from actors. Majors brings a grim loneliness to Brown – not just in his lyrics and expressions, but even in the way he acts. Whenever we learn something new about Brownie, the heavy door seems to have opened for a moment, only to reveal a sliver of light. Partly because this character has devoted himself to something supposedly greater than himself – an army, a nation, a cause – and yet he still has to hold on to his individuality, because the thing he’s dedicated himself to may, on some level, not entirely merit his devotion.
Perhaps there is also a duality in this title. It is not the service or the flag that these people ultimately dedicate themselves to, but to each other. As a result, Powell’s protrusion is largely reactive as it is slowly drawn into Majors’ orbit. It’s touching to see Hudner transform from a wide-eyed, carefree boy-flyer into someone more grounded, more compassionate, maybe even more melancholic. War movies often tell of their heroes who, after passing through a meat grinder, look at them from a distance. In SacrificeIn this case, it’s not so much the struggle that makes these people watch from a thousand yards away, but rather the feelings they had to endure.